It's a fairly established NBA belief — and in the world as a whole, really — that practicing things helps people get better at them. A post player who develops new moves will become a force on the block, a point guard who works on his strength will finish better at the rim, and a mascot who spends a few more hours on the trampoline everyday will finally pass through that ring of fire without being burned alive.
At the same time, NBA athletes have absurd natural ability that allows them to better themselves in ways that escape commoners. Philadelphia 76ers guard Evan Turner, for instance, has seen his 3-point percentage rise to 44.4 percent this season after hitting a paltry 22.4 percent in 2011-12. Based on what we believe to be true about improvement, we should assume that Turner worked his butt off taking shots in the gym this summer.
"I stopped focusing on it," he said. "That was it. I stopped focusing on it. I worry about my mid-range [game], my driving and my free throws, and that's it. Honestly, I don't shoot threes before games. I don't practice threes anymore." [...]
To hear him tell it, he did try to work on his three-point shooting over the summer.
"But," he said, "I wasn't hitting them. After a while you say, 'Never mind.' I just kept working on my mid-range game. I think the more important thing is just to be in a good rhythm."
There is a certain counterintuitive sense to his approach. For many athletes, improvement can be a psychological issue, so that focusing on struggles — say, as in the case of a baseball player who gets mired in a slump by fixating on the negative — makes them perform worse. But some issues are predominantly physical, and we typically believe shooting to be one of them. Perhaps it's a little different than we previously believed.
Or, just maybe, Turner is taking easier threes. From the same CSNPhilly.com report:
He shoots them almost exclusively from the corners, the shortest of the three-point shots. It is, he said, what the defense is giving him — and but a few feet from the spots on the baseline where he prefers to launch his jumper.
A quick comparison between Turner's shot charts from this season and last season expresses as much. Turner is in fact shooting a much larger percentage of his threes from the corners, which would seem to explain part of his bump in efficiency.
On the other hand, he's shooting so much better that it's unlikely these more intelligent shots explain all of his improvement. Making more shots even though he didn't practice them is still weird — a corner three is relatively short, but it's still a long shot.
So, yes, we can still marvel at how top-level professional athletes play by different rules than the rest of us. When we stop running, we don't suddenly get faster.